April 14, 2024
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How Did Chanukah Affect Religions of the World?

The Chanukah miracle was a multi-layered experience: The ever-burning oil reminded us that even in a post-prophetic era Divine intervention still visited our people. For the very first time we faced anti-religious hostility and fierce attempts to crush our religious belief and practice. Our triumph demonstrated the courage to sacrifice our lives for religion and the capacity to overthrow seemingly unconquerable enemies. This victory foreshadowed a 2,000-year struggle during which we would constantly face off against kings and empires bent upon crushing Judaism. Our matchless dedication to God has always defeated formidable adversaries. Finally, the military triumph of Chanukah restored Jewish sovereignty for a final “moment” before we lost it 200 years later. This was the last period of sovereignty before we lost it for two millennia.

However, Chanukah’s impact was felt far beyond the borders of Israel and far beyond the Jewish world. The “Al Hanisim” prayer of Chanukah refers to “God bolstering His holy name in His world (u’lecha asita sheim gadol v’kadosh b’olamecha), implying that Chanukah influenced global religious thought. The events of Chanukah cannot be severed from the larger historical process that predated Chanukah and ensued in the centuries immediately afterward.

Ancient Greece advanced major achievements in science, math, philosophy, culture and politics. There is hardly a sphere of modern civilization that Greece didn’t deeply impact; Greece can be referred to as the “first civilization.” Additionally, Greece re-imagined the religious theories of the ancient world, breaking with archaic notions of paganism. No longer were gods physical statues, stars, natural elements or human-crafted images. The Greeks were able to abstract their gods into larger-than-life beings who inhabited a distant mountain and possessed superior powers. They failed to imagine a one God responsible for the variety and dichotomy of this booming and buzzing world. However, they did make great strides in revolutionizing the way the world practiced religion; they extinguished the world of classic paganism.

In their search for religion, the Greeks also sought Judaism and its values. Approximately 150 years before the Chanukah faceoff, Alexander the Great visited the same mountain upon which much of the Chanukah drama would unfold. This visit included a legendary encounter with Shimon “Hatzadik”—the reigning kohen gadol—who had visited Alexander’s dreams the night before each of his military conquests. By paying homage to this “Jewish” saint—to the shock of all his generals—Alexander effectively recognized the vitality of Jerusalem and of the Torah in driving the expansion and development of Greece. He spares Jerusalem from inevitable conquest.

Additionally, about 100 years before Chanukah, the Greek king of Egypt named Ptolemy II supervised the translation of the Torah into Greek—once again reflecting the great thirst in ancient Greece for Torah muse. Well before the Chanukah battle of cultures, Greece acknowledged the Torah and the Jews as indispensable for the expansion of Greek ideas. The initial stages of the encounter between Greece and Israel weren’t adversarial but solicitous; they weren’t hostile but friendly and collaborative. Greece sensed—perhaps instinctually—that Judaism possessed traditions of religion and Divine revelation that their culture lacked.

Of course this contact between Athens and Jerusalem also caused cultural seepage. Sadly, many Jews became Hellenized—unduly influenced by Greek ideals. However, the influence was bi-directional; many Greeks were deeply influenced by Jewish religion and ideals. Ultimately, it would be these Judaism-inspired Greeks and their Roman descendants who would be particularly impressionable to monotheism and would convert to Christianity. Essentially, the culture clash punctuated by Chanukah transformed Greece and advanced world religious thought closer to the ideals of monotheism. Within about 800 years much of the world would convert to Christianity or Islam. While these are each flawed forms of monotheism, they are preferable to the paganism of antiquity as well as the Greek world of mythology. The Jewish triumph during Chanukah is responsible for “seeding” the world with important values of monotheism.

How did Judaism impact the religious world of Greek religious thought and how did Chanukah steer the world toward monotheism?

Firstly, Judaism reinforced the hierarchy between man and God. Prehistoric man inhabited a terrifying world of chance and unending danger. Living in a chaotic world, the ancients imagined gods as grotesque figures inhabiting the heavens and mocking the humans below. Breaking with this tragic past, the Greeks were first to organize our world; science helped them categorize the physical world and philosophy helped them organize the world of thought and meaning. The word cosmos is a Greek word denoting “order.” By ordering the world, the Greeks transformed it into a predictable world of ration without much of the anxiety that plagued their predecessors.

This shift to a less anxious and less frightening reality deeply affected their view of their gods. Men—empowered by ration—were seen as equals to the gods. Man may possess inferior powers but they were essentially equal to the gods—they married gods, battled them and forged alliances with them. The classic distance that had separated human beings from gods was eliminated. For this reason, Greek religion is completely deficient of the concept of commandments. Man can model the attributes or behavior of gods but why should he be summoned to routinely fulfill the wishes and commandment of gods who were his equals.

Chanukah restored this lost “transcendence” and Judaism reminded the world that God is fundamentally different from human experience. We restored the sense of hierarchy to the relationship between man and God and preserved the concept of commandments as the heart of religion. We “returned” God to Heaven!

A second major flaw of Greek religious thought stemmed from the tendency of Greek philosophy to study eternal truths that had little to do with actual objects in our world. Plato likened human beings to people chained to a cave, watching shadows of figures walking by but never actually seeing real items. Eternal and ideal truths contained true meaning rather than actual physical objects. Plato shifted the Greek mind from actual objects and experiences to eternal and abstract concepts that represented the ideal forms.

This highly abstract doctrine created two glaring religious cavities. Firstly, as man pursues these abstract and eternal ideas, he doesn’t operate within a particular historical framework. In the pursuit of the universal, Greece erased “historical context.” Jews were chosen as God’s people at a certain period of history and we were delivered a very particular historical mission. Chanukah re-asserted that Jewish selection occurred within a historical framework and as a response to the necessities of history. The book of Bereishit highlights a moral failure of history that caused God to select us. God’s will and word are timeless, but He instructs us to transform history by applying His will. Greek religion eliminated historical consciousness from human religion and the miracle of Chanukah reminded us that the revealed word of God was part of a larger historical process.

Finally, the world of Plato left little room for those who didn’t match the “ideal form” of human experience. Not every human being is born “ideal,” and suffering humans rely on each other for assistance. Ancient Greece didn’t incorporate charity or altruism as religious values. The Greek pursuit of “tzedek”—an ideal and just society—ignored any values of tzedakah—of benevolence toward weaker members of society. Judaism restored the importance of chesed in perfecting a world left intentionally incomplete by God.

The miracle of Chanukah rejuvenated the Jewish spirit at a very delicate moment in our history. Beyond Jewish revitalization, Chanukah also shaped the evolution of general religion. Greek culture—for all of its achievements—was threatening to steer religion away from monotheism and its basic tenets such as hierarchy, commandments, historical consciousness and chesed. Chanukah stabilized the future course of religion and steered it back on course. While we hope one day for a world that clearly sees the one God, we are glad that most organized religions bear greater semblance to monotheism than they do to the sensational and scandalous world of Mount Olympus. Chanukah had a lot to say about that development.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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